Review: Only Lovers Left Alive
By Amy Taubin
(Jim Jarmusch, U.K./Germany/U.S., 2013)
“Shall I tell you again about Einstein’s theory of spooky action at a distance,” whispers Adam (Tom Hiddleston) to Eve (Tilda Swinton) his wife of many, many years. Or maybe I’ve misremembered and she’s sweet-talking him, so intricately have they wedded their identities. They could be the most perfect couple you’ve ever met, lovers for eons, perhaps the only lovers left alive, just the two of them against the world. You might recognize the feeling—the way they feel, the way you feel watching them hanging out at a club, perhaps like the old Mudd Club resurrected in Detroit, she on his lap, both of them languorous and attenuated. No Wave rock royalty. Just a pair of vampires.
Some basics: Eve lives in Tangier; Adam in the city where “the Packard, the most beautiful automobile in the world” was once built. They’re synched like Einstein’s entangled quantum particles: when she lies on her bed, savoring a glass of blood, he lounges on his worn velvet couch, drinking the same. More mundanely, they converse via iPhone’s FaceTime, jury-rigged on his end through a tube-television set. Adam is a composer, a collector of rare guitars and analog amps. He lives reclusively, like a Pre-Raphaelite aesthete, in a tumbledown mansion, dark and cluttered. She’s a prodigious reader committing the history of the written word to memory with a flick of the eye over each page. Her best friend, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who’s also her connection to black-market hospital product, is dying of tainted blood. “They’ve poisoned their own blood supply, not to mention their water,” says Adam, with contempt. “What a piece of work is a man?” croaks Marlowe, quoting Hamlet by none other than Christopher Marlowe, when he sees Adam up close toward the end.
Adam is indeed a piece of work, outrageously handsome and melancholy as the Dane, ever toying with suicide. Eve, older and wiser, flies to Detroit to cheer him up. She blames his early influences—“those romantics, Byron and Keats and the French ones.” Surely, there have been times as bad before—“the Crusades, the Inquisition.” Detroit, she says, has water. “It will survive when the cities of the South are burning.” Being a firsthand witness to history gives one perspective as well as superbly refined aesthetics. But no sooner have Adam and Eve revived their marriage than an uninvited guest, Eve’s little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), an L.A. philistine who has no qualms about biting through a human jugular when she’s hungry, causes the couple to flee to Tangier.
Jarmusch has written his best script since Dead Man (95), its bone-dry wit, neither camp nor twee, a tender, mordant expression of love. Visually, the movie is anything but dry; the sensuous, tactile, deep-night cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (this is Jarmusch’s first digital film and darkness is what digital does best) with its long twisty tracking shots, overhead 360-degree revolves, and car-window views of Detroit, glowing phosphorescent through the blackness, is spellbinding. Only Lovers is awash in music, most of it dirge-like East/West fusion (composed and played by Jozef van Wissem and SQURL, Jarmusch’s noise band). But Adam has a choice vinyl collection and when Denise LaSalle’s great soul voice on “Trapped by This Thing Called Love” or Charlie Feathers’s down ’n’ dirty “Can’t Hardly Stand It” cut through the ambience, it’s electrifying. Feathers and LaSalle are part of an underground history of American song. Toward the very end of the film, however, Adam, starved for blood and waiting for Eve to bring him his fix, wanders into a Tangier dive bar, lured by the rapturous singing of Yasmine Hamdan. It is like nothing else in the film—a woman taking the sound of ancient Islam and making of it something utterly new. Adam and Eve have not yet seen and heard it all. The will to live returns. Survival by any means necessary. Nobody’s perfect, and especially not if they have weird teeth.